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Science and Innovations

New COVID-19 Research Institute Forms In Arizona


A new partnership in Arizona will track the spread of the coronavirus disease by investigating its genetic code. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, it’s a coalition of scientists from Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, and the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute or TGen.

The partnership is called the Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union. Its scientists have sequenced more than 100 genetic samples of the virus so far, and plan to do so for every Arizona patient.

David Engelthaler of TGen says genetics reveal how different strains of the virus are related, where they originated, and how they spread. "We’re bringing this to bear not just for the purposes of research and to further our understanding on the science side, but to also make a real difference in the response," he says. "This information is going to be used by public health officials and already is to better understand this virus." 

The team will use genetics to forecast the growth of coronavirus cases and show how physical distancing measures slow its spread. Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona says working backward from recent samples, they can see the virus was circulating in Arizona by early March. "These genomes are telling us that, before we took really extensive measures statewide, this virus was already established and transmitting successfully in a transmission chain," he says.

The research will also inform the development of treatments and vaccines. The group’s findings will be made public and available to researchers worldwide.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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